“For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” That’s what Paul tells the Romans later in this letter. In doing so, he was sharing a basic truth of Scripture. And it is a presupposition of all that the apostle says. God is the judge. He is the holy and just judge. All people will stand before the judgment seat of God on the Last Day. He will declare a person to be just or guilty.
This is definitely a legal setting. But when we hear about judgment in a legal setting, we must set aside our conception of what this means. In our law courts there is a judge. There is a prosecutor. There is a defendant. And there is a jury. Ultimately, it is the jury that makes the final judgment, and the judge is there to make sure that all is done in a proper and legal fashion.
However, in the ancient world there was only one individual who made the judgment. It could be the king as he sat on his throne. At the time of the first century A.D., it was the Roman governor in a province who sat on the judgment seat. An individual appeared before this one judge, and the judge determined guilt or innocence. The judge determined the punishment that was to be enacted. Think about Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate, and you have a classic example of what this looked like. This is the way God’s Word describes the setting of God’s judgment – the individual standing before God the judge.
God’s Word has revealed that God is the one judge who will judge all people. God is holy and just, and he will judge all people on the basis of his law. He will judge people on the basis of his divine will by which he has ordered this creation. Now in the last twenty seconds of human history, this idea has been found to be absurd. There is no such thing as “truth” we are told. There are no eternal standards by which a person can be judged. And for that matter, we are told that there is no personal God who would judge us anyway. But, the psalmist replies: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” And as for their being no eternal truths … God laughs, and he gets the last laugh.
The medieval world was not so foolish. It knew perfectly well that we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. It knew that God is the holy and just judge. It knew that we are not holy or just – we are sinners. So the question was, how could an individual be justified? How could an individual be declared just – innocent - by God at the judgment?
Of course, the Church knew that Jesus Christ had died on the cross and risen from the dead to win the forgiveness of sins. You can’t read the New Testament and miss this completely. But in the actual application of this saving work to an individual the Church’s theology said that God’s grace equipped you to participate in the process – to do your part – that led to final salvation.
And the Church said that while Christ’s forgiveness covered the guilt of sin, you still owed God a penalty because you had offended him. This penalty was addressed by penance. If the penalty was not sufficiently paid off, then the individual ended up in purgatory where a painful process of purification would prepare the individual for full salvation. Since people were always sinning, they were always racking up more penalty – more than their penance could address. In this book keeping mentality, individuals thought that they faced hundreds or thousands of years in purgatory.
What was a person to do? They went on pilgrimages, and paid for masses to be said, and bought indulgences because these all helped to pay off the penalty owed. If you were really serious about your salvation, like Martin Luther was, then you entered the “religious” life – you became a monk or nun because here the whole life was one of penance.
But what Luther discovered was that no matter how much you did, you could never know if you had done enough. As he studied Scripture he realized that this was because the whole system was set up on the basis of the law – on the basis of doing. And this can never be a way that sinners can deal with the holy God. The apostle Paul says in our text, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Works of the law – doing the law can’t bring the status of being declared just by God. Instead, the law only reveals that we are sinners who sin. Ever since the Fall, sin is a power that has controlled us. Earlier in this chapter, Paul said, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’”
The problem is not the law. As Paul says later in Romans, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” After all, the law is an expression of God’s divine will and ordering for life. Instead, we are the problem. We are fallen sinners from the moment of our conception. We have lost the image of God and are not capable of living in a holy way. Paul says in our text, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All Ten Commandments show us our sin, but you don’t need to be beyond the first one to see this: You shall have no other gods. In our thoughts, our words, and our deeds we put other things before God. We trust in them more. We value them more. We think about them more. We find our peace and security in them, instead of God.
For sinners – for us – the law can never be the means by which we can have a righteous standing before God. What Martin Luther rediscovered for the Church is the fact that God’s saving action to put all things right is a gift. It is purely a matter of God’s grace – his unmerited loving favor. It is something that God gives on account of Jesus Christ’s death. And he gives this by faith – faith in Jesus Christ.
The apostle says in our text: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This saving action that gives us a righteous status before God does not occur through the law. But it is something that God’s Word in the Old Testament had promised.
Paul says that God’s righteousness has been manifested now – a righteousness that is through faith in Jesus Christ. It has been manifested now because God has acted in a dramatic and definitive way through his Son. The apostle reveal in our text that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
God has redeemed us in Christ Jesus – he has freed us from sin. He did this by putting Jesus forward as the sacrifice to atone for our sin. The Greek word that is translated as “propitiation” recalls the mercy seat that was the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. On the Day of Atonement, the blood of animals that had been sacrificed was sprinkled on the mercy seat in order make atonement for Israel’s sins. This was necessary so that the holy God could continue to dwell in Israel’s presence at the tabernacle.
Jesus died on the cross as the sacrifice that atoned for our sins. Paul had said in the first chapter, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” The holy God pours out his wrath and judgment against sin. That’s what he does. That’s what God the Father did to Jesus Christ on the cross in your place.
Now you receive the redemption won by Christ through faith in him. There are no works involved. As Paul says, we are “justified by his grace as a gift.” This faith is not a work. In fact, in chapter four the apostle defines it as the opposite of doing. This faith worked by the Holy Spirit simply receives the gift from God.
Paul says in our text that God has done this “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God has shown himself to be just because he has judged sin through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. But he has also justified us – he has given us justification – through faith in Jesus who died on the cross. This means that already now, we know the verdict of the last day. Indeed, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. But because of faith in Jesus Christ we have been declared by God to be righteous. It is true now. It will be true on the Last Day.
In our text we hear about the death of Jesus. But of course, when Paul talks about faith in Christ, he means faith in the Lord who died and rose from the dead. Paul began Romans by referring to the “Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Or as he will say later in chapter ten, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
On this Festival of the Reformation, we give thanks to God for his servant Martin Luther. Through Luther, the Gospel was returned to the center of the Church’s life – the truth that we are justified by grace, on account of Christ, through faith. This is a truth that Luther confessed at the risk of his own life. It is a truth that each one of us must also believe and confess in our lives.
It is the truth – the good news – that we need to confess by sharing it with others. That’s what Martin Luther did. That’s what the apostle Paul did. As he told the Romans at the beginning of this letter: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” In the Gospel we find the assurance of salvation – that we are justified and ready to stand before the judgment seat of God. That is good news that everyone needs to hear.